After days of denial, officials at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo have admitted that workers gave the burial mask of King Tutankhamen an unintended trim last summer. While adjusting the lighting in the case holding the relic last August, workers handled the mask incorrectly and accidentally knocked the long braided beard, commonly worn by pharaohs and gods, off the chin of one of ancient Egypt’s most recognizable artifacts. Curators then did further damage by hastily gluing the blue beard back onto the golden mask with an epoxy that was not suitable for such a delicate relic.
The news of the incident broke last week after questions were raised when photographs surfaced showing a clearly visible line of yellow glue circling the beard attached to King Tut’s mask. Then, three museum curators, speaking anonymously, confirmed to the Associated Press that an accident had occurred and said that they were ordered to immediately repair the mask overnight to ensure that one of the museum’s top draws would remain on display.
In some respects, the cover-up proved more damaging than the original accident. The rush repair was made with a strong, fast-drying epoxy normally used for wood or metal, not for a fragile 3,300-year-old antiquity. One anonymous curator said that the glue was applied too liberally and that a spatula was used to scrape some of the dried epoxy from the mask, which ended up causing a scratch.
“Unfortunately, he used a very irreversible material—epoxy has a very high property for attaching and is used on metal or stone, but I think it wasn’t suitable for an outstanding object like Tutankhamen’s golden mask,” one conservator told the Associated Press. “The mask should have been taken to the conservation lab but they were in a rush to get it displayed quickly again and used this quick drying, irreversible material.”
While some fear the artifact might be permanently damaged, German restoration specialist Christian Eckmann told a packed news conference at the museum on Saturday that the mask can be properly restored based on a plan that will be developed by a team of conservators, archaeologists and natural scientists. “It is a delicate operation,” Eckmann said. “It has to be done very carefully, but it is reversible.”
“The use of epoxy is not the best, but it is a solution,” Eckmann said of the hasty fix. “However, this measure was unfortunately done not really properly, so you can see now some remains of glue at the beard.” Museum administrators refused to comment on the specific type of epoxy that was used in the repair.
Eckmann said the connection of a scratch seen on the mask to the incident had yet to be determined. “We found one scratch which is visible,” he said, “but it cannot be said now whether this scratch is an ancient one, a recent one or a modern one which just happened right now.”
This is not the first time that the beard has been severed from the mask that was placed over the young pharaoh’s face after his death around 1323 B.C. at the age of 19. When British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the mask inside King Tut’s burial chamber in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in 1924, he found the beard separate from it. It remained unattached when the mask arrived at the Egyptian Museum that year, and the facial hair was finally connected with glue in 1941. Eckmann said that the adhesive had likely loosened over the decades, making last year’s accident more likely.
After a small statue of the ancient funerary goddess Serket was allegedly damaged in West Berlin during a tour of the relics discovered in King Tut’s tomb in 1980, the Egyptian government banned the display of the priceless collection outside the country. Now, the collection’s most recognizable piece has been damaged in Egypt itself. The golden mask inlaid with stone and glass has remained on display since the accident with the crust of dried yellow epoxy filling the small gap between the chin and the beard clearly visible.